In the late 1990s in Tucson, Arizona, longstanding efforts by community activists came to fruition with the creation of a Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program for the city's public school system. MAS’s successes, including raising the graduation rate of Latino students—who nationally experience among the highest dropout rates—to more than 90 percent, helped usher in an end to federal oversight of local schools that had been in place since 1978, when the district court of Arizona found that the Tucson Unified School District had “acted with segregative intent.”
The triumph proved short-lived: in 2010, Arizona outlawed ethnic studies programs like MAS under fear of “promoting ethnic solidarity” and in early 2012 TUSD reluctantly complied with the state’s directive, removing books like Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street, Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Howard Zinn's People’s History of the United States from the curriculum.
However, on February 6, after a group of African-American and Mexican-American plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth District Court of Appeals to allow the reinstatement of MAS, US District Judge David Bury ordered TUSD to reinstate “culturally relevant courses,” a step forward in the long journey to eliminate the vestiges of past discrimination and achieve educational equality in Tucson.
During the public comment period prior to Judge Bury's ruling, a coalition of youth activists pushed for far more than the the reinstatement of MAS, calling for the establishment of programs for African-American Studies, Women’s and LGBTQ Studies, as well as Middle Eastern–American, Native American and Asian-American Studies; reversals on school closures, and a reduction of the number of hours that English Language Learners (ELL) are separated from their peers.
“We’re reaching for the stars,” said Danny Montoya, a member of the Chicano Literature After School Studies program (CLASS). “The foundation of what the MAS classes taught us was not only to stand up for ourselves, but to stand up for everybody.”
In his ruling last week, Judge Bury instructed TUSD to “develop and implement culturally relevant courses of instruction designed to reflect the history, experiences, and culture of African-American and Mexican-American communities” by the beginning of the 2013–14 academic year. Criticizing a memo from Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, he noted that “the State asks the court to disregard the several hundred comments from members of the general community that MAS courses have merit as ‘mere solicitations by advocates of the illegal MAS program.’ ”
While unable to address the specific ban on MAS—which hinges on a federal court ruling with regard to Arizona’s ethnic studies law—Bury acknowledged the program’s value. Citing studies suggesting that “students who took the MAS courses were more likely to graduate from high school on time and to pass state achievement tests than similarly situated peers,” Bury affirmed that “the Court believes that including culturally relevant courses in the USP affords the parties an opportunity to continue to study the affects of these types of classes on student achievement.”
This success of youth-mobilized desegregation activism is yet another in a growing number of victories in the much-publicized struggle for civil rights in Arizona.